It's hard to believe there was a time when I had not heard of Daniel Johnston. Unfortunately, it was right after the curtain came down on Jason Nodler's first Johnston rock play, Speeding Motorcycle. The story seemed to make perfect sense to me even though I didn't know one iota about the enigmatic Texas singer.
And, there was a rock band on stage. Generally speaking, I have a weakness for shows that come with rock bands.
That was then, this is now.
Johnston went from obscure cult figure to mega-media cult figure. When audiences sit down at DiverseWorks tonight for Nodler's second Johnston opus, Life is Happy and Sad, they may have already downloaded his Hi, How are You iPhone game, or heard his song "Worried Shoes" performed by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are, or possibly be sporting a pair of his All-Star Converse sneakers.
Not enough you say? How about the new Rizzoli collection of his art work and for those willing to wait, a biopic directed by Gabriel Sunday is in the works.
Musically, Johnston is an acquired taste. Some think he's brilliant, others not so much. Sometimes I wonder if he would be so famous if he he didn't have the tragic story of mental illness. Regardless of what you think of his music, you cannot deny that he has captured our attention in a big way. He's certainly captured Nodler's attention, leading to two of the most significant works in his already impressive career. Although words and music are by Johnston, he was not involved in the adaptation process. Nodler was given free reign and access to key Johnston archives to create the piece.
According to Nodler, artistic director of The Catastrophic Theatre, Johnston is still too obscure. "He should be up there with John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen," Nodler says.
The Waller, Texas native catapulted to fame when Kurt Cobain wore his T-shirt on stage at the MTV Music Awards in 1992. With the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston and his inclusion in the 2006 Whitney Biannual (yes, he's a visual artist too), the guy found himself in the limelight. Nodler got his share of fame too, including a New York Times story. But that's not why he's making a second piece. He just loves his music and there's more stories to tell.
"I could make a Daniel Johnston piece once a year," admits Nodler. "Plus, this is sort of a Christmas show."
Life is Happy and Sad takes place in a University of Texas practice room, where Johnston spent the mid-1980s writing this particular batch of songs. Where Speeding Motorcycle focused on Johnston's mythology, the new piece hones in on Johnston himself.
Early on in his career, Nodler, a self-confessed fanboy, imagined working with musicians rather than trained actors. He was intrigued by the raw theatricality of live music. "I used to tell my actors to go see various bands," he remembers. Now finally, Nodler gets his wish. He snagged local rock legend Matt Brownlie of Bring Back the Guns, to play the young Johnston. Brownlie looks and sounds a lot like the singer, but cuter and better on the piano. Brownlie claims to have traveled the road from "casual to obsessed" fan during the rehearsal process. "His songwriting skills are inconsistent, but his best songs, they are really good," Brownlie says.
I'm not sure I entirely understand the mania, but when Brownlie sits down at that piano to crank out the best of Johnston's tunes, you will know exactly why Nodler wanted to work with a rock singer, regardless of what you do or do not know about Daniel Johnston.
Oh, and the rock band is back too.